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'It's Time': Healthcare Unions Call On WA To Pass Staffing Reqs

Patch logo Patch 2/2/2022 Charles Woodman
Registered nurse Estella Wilmarth tends to a patient in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, in this Friday, Jan. 14, 2022 file photo. © AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File Registered nurse Estella Wilmarth tends to a patient in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, in this Friday, Jan. 14, 2022 file photo.

OLYMPIA, WA — A coalition of Washington healthcare workers is calling on the state legislature to pass a pair of healthcare reform bills, which supporters call a "game changer" for embattled employees.

The bills in question, House Bill 1868 and Senate Bill 5751, aim to address the healthcare system's staffing needs by making the job more enticing, banning required overtime, guaranteeing meal and rest breaks, and mandating minimum staffing standards. However, that last part, the minimum staffing requirements, has caused some friction between the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA), legislators, and three unions representing tens of thousands of rank-and-file healthcare workers.

As the bills made the rounds at the state capitol, the WSHA on Tuesday released a statement claiming the proposal would exacerbate staffing shortages.

"Imposing these one-size-fits-all requirements will make many of the care delays we've seen during the pandemic a permanent feature in Washington State," said June Altaras, a registered nurse with MultiCare Health System and WSHA member. "We share legislators' desire to continue supporting the health care teams that have been so strained over the last two years. However, this proposal will make the problem worse."

As an example, under HB 1868, ICU units would be required to staff at least one RN for every two patients. WSHA says Washington already has a shortage of about 6,000 registered nurses, and their estimates show the bill would require hospitals to hire at least 15,000 more to meet the minimum staffing requirements— a combined cost of over a billion dollars, the association said.

On the other side of the issue is the WA Safe + Healthy campaign, a coalition of the Washington State Nurses Association, UFCW 21 and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW which represents a combined 71,000 workers across Washington state. WA Safe + Healthy campaign leaders say they strongly support the proposed legislation, and believe that minimum staffing requirements will solve current staffing shortages.

"It's time, that's my first reaction to this bill," said Jane Hopkins, a registered nurse and the executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. "We, as healthcare workers, nurses and everybody working in hospitals, have been fighting for safe staffing standards for years. I am glad that, at last, we have the legislature taking this seriously."

Hopkins told Patch she speaks with healthcare workers every day who are burned out and considering quitting because they are so overburdened.

"There are a lot of nurses out there. There isn't a shortage of health care workers, there is a shortage of workers that want to work under these awful conditions," Hopkins said. "I don't understand why hospitals would say having more healthcare workers would lead to less care, it doesn't make sense."

WSHA leaders warned that staffing standards could raise health care costs and further limit patient access— which Hopkins dismissed as "scare tactics", to avoid improving working conditions.

"We know that this law is going to stop people leaving, and those who have left are going to want to come back," Hopkins said.

Other supporters agree with Hopkins' assertion. In a letter to constituents, HB 1868 sponsor Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane), said that his bill would prevent workers from leaving.

"Safe staffing standards will protect our healthcare workers and ensure that hospitals are prepared for emergencies like the one we are having right now," wrote Riccelli. "Washington should be a place where healthcare workers can have long and successful careers. Ultimately, by protecting them we are also protecting ourselves by ensuring that patients can get the care they deserve."

Riccelli also points to a recent poll which found that 84 percent of healthcare workers said they were burned out. Nearly half of all respondents said they were likely to leave the healthcare profession in the next few years.

"Once it goes through, we know they're going to see better patient care, they're going to see more discharges," Hopkins said. "This is amazing, and it's about time."

So far, both bills have drawn broad bipartisan support from local lawmakers. The first of the bills, HB 1868, on Friday was heard by the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standard, who recommended that the law be passed with substitutions. It has since been referred to the appropriations committee for future action.

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